An evening with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas? Yes please.

Just impressions, sure, but impressions of such authenticity and sheer vitality as to be completely transportive.

Close your eyes and you could just as well be in Carnegie Hall, 1961, listening to Garland’s iconic concert; or in some honky-tonk hall in America’s deep south toe-tapping to Cline’s country twang; or some smokey New York blues bar and the unmistakeable cry of Holiday. Piaf’s growling French anthem Non, Je ne regrette rien stirs the soul; Callas’ soprano reverberates around the world’s great opera houses.

And yet each voice — some of history’s greatest — comes from the same mouth in Joanna Murray-Smith’s jukebox drama Songs For Nobodies. Like Bombshells, the playwright’s one-woman tour de force for Caroline O’Connor, Murray-Smith has created an exhausting and enviable role to showcase a no-longer-unsung female talent.

There have been more emotionally resonate performances on the Melbourne stage this year, perhaps — these short vignettes can’t penetrate character all that deeply — but there surely hasn’t been a performance of such breathless versatility than Bernadette Robinson here. She is, quite simply, astonishing.

The seasoned cabaret performer is the heartbroken bathroom attendant who mends Garland’s hem the night of her celebrated Carnegie gig; the backing singer who lives a dream with Cline the day she’s killed in a plane crash; the ambitious New York Times reporter assigned to interview Holiday at her peak; the Irish nanny who witnessed the fraying relationship between the opera star and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Nobodies, with stars in their eyes and hope in their hearts to experience, however briefly, a moment of magic.

They are minor character studies woven together, absurdly, with moments of history. There’s a Forrest Gump-like implausibility here that you’re just going to have to go with. For each encounter is impossibly charming, written with trademark wit and tremendous affection for her subjects by Murray-Smith.

Songs For Nobodies is unashamedly crowd-pleasing entertainment, as we’ve come to expect from our most successful female playwright. As irresistible as anything she’s done, surely. What ‘mainstream’ theatre should be — what it has failed to be in other Melbourne Theatre Company plays this year.

They could have sold many more tickets at a larger venue — the season finale, from the company’s most bankable playwright, is already a sell-out — but the Fairfax Studio envelops the audience in each intimate encounter. It’s simply and effectively staged by director Simon Phillips, with set/costumes from Andrew Bailey and Kerry Saxby’s brooding lighting design, revealing a swinging four-piece band led by musical director Ian McDonald as the divas strike up.

Robinson brilliantly executes what amounts to a performance masterclass. She’s sung these songs before, in acclaimed one-woman tributes and pops orchestra concerts, but to summon each so convincingly in an hour and a half — with just a word, sometimes; a note, a gesture — often in furious conversation with others, is a gob-smacking routine.

(Callas, the prodigious Greek soprano, proves unsurprisingly the biggest vocal stretch — and as a finale to the play it’s probably Murray-Smith’s weakest characterisation, to be fair. But the thing glides so seamlessly to that point it hardly seems to matter.)

But there is more than technical proficiency here. Robinson creates living, breathing portraits in just a few short moments; genuinely funny and moving portrayals of women trapped in the spotlight, for a moment or a lifetime, coveted or not, and the very human connections they make. Robinson and her multiple personalities simply dazzle.


Curtain Call rating: A

The details: Songs For Nobodies plays the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until December 23. Tickets on the MTC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey